In Brief: Some bands constantly change up the game. Mumford & Sons aren’t one of those bands. They’re more the type that picks a core style and does it exceptionally well.
I’m not gonna mince words. Mumford & Sons‘ sophomore album Babel isn’t going to be an easy album for me to review, and I’ve been putting off doing so for several months now. Usually when I find myself stalling, it’s because an album is so boring and nondescript that I can’t think of much to say about it from one track to the next. An amazingly good album will generally change up the formula enough to make the songs distinctive, and an amazingly bad album will often have a handful of songs that stand out for their own individual glaring flaws. What’s left in between is usually the average stuff, which follows a formula so tediously that it’s not much fun to listen closely for the elements that make the songs distinctive, and even the normally fun act of tearing it apart in a review can get tedious a few tracks in.
But here’s the thing: Babel is a good album made by talented people who clearly love playing their instruments. I put this record on, and the twang of banjos and dobros and the occasional fiddle puts a smile on my face, and I want to stomp my feet in time to the rhythm and growl along with the gravelly yet heartfelt vocals of Marcus Mumford. It’s fun to listen to… until the point where things start to get a bit indistinct somewhere in the middle of the record. And that’s what leads me to realize that reviewing it is going to be troublesome. I try to listen to an album enough to have the individual songs – good, bad, or ugly – roughly mapped out in my head so that I can remember what’s important about each one while I’m trying to give you a better sense of what the artist is doing. Since Mumford & sons have a tendency to do lively folk/rock jams and down-tempo, acoustic ballads replete with reverent harmony vocals really well, you’d think that an album full of these two things would be a total home run. But they have this strange refusal to change up the formula, so as three or four pretty awesome tracks become the template for twelve, the whole exercise gets to be a bit tedious. I can’t be excessively hard on any one song – it’s just the sum total of it that makes me wonder, “Okay, what else you guys got?” And this is coming from someone who listens to his fair share of melodic acoustic music. I adore groups like Fleet Foxes and Punch Brothers for what they can do with similar instruments. These groups thrive creatively, while Mumford & Sons… well after a while, it honestly feels like they’re punching the clock. It’s clearly a job that they love, but it’s certainly possible to love the work that you do and still fall into a pattern after a while. It would be far worse to be stuck in a job you hate… or to not be very good at the job you enjoy doing. So that’s why I’m not going to write an overtly negative review of this band. But for those of you who prefer a little risk in your music, consider this fair warning – you’re probably gonna come up a bit short with these guys, and you’re gonna wonder what all the fuss is about.
Fuss? Yeah, there’s been a lot of discussion about Mumford & Sons lately. Some folks – myself included – are apt to hear the lightning-fast flurry of fingers on guitar and banjo strings, and the interlocking precision of male voices who sound like they’ve been singing together for decades, and start throwing around the word “brilliant” for lack of better descriptors. Then others, who analyze things like song structure or chord progression, or who like to hear a performer stretch the definition of what can be done with their instrument, hear the same thing and respond that technical ability does not equal artistic brilliance. Still others will hear the spiritual overtones that Mumford’s lyrics are absolutely steeped in, and feel inspired by their openness and humility. That’s when all of the comparisons to U2 start flying about, even though the two bands have no similarities beyond hailing from the British Isles (U2 being from Ireland and Mumford from England), because apparently we’re just not very good at thinking of other examples of Christian-influenced lyricism in bands that do not identify themselves as “Christian music”. (Which is funny, because that stuff is seemingly everywhere nowadays.)
And oh yeah, the whole “British Isles” thing? Apparently that’s a sticking point for some aficionados of the genres of music which loosely comprise the term “Americana”. Hearing a British band pick up some of these instruments feels a lot like “musical tourism” to some, and it gets into that whole territorial issue of who’s allowed to play a form of music that some other culture cultivated and popularized. My personal view is that since it took a bit of thievery for some of these American genres to exist in the first place, it’s all up for grabs nowadays. But to be fair, one defining trait that often feels warm and welcoming when I hear it in American folk, bluegrass, country, etc. does seem to be missing on Babel, and that’s a sense of place. A lot of these guys aren’t afraid to get specific about the places they call home and the other ones they call unfamiliar, and how traveling from one place to the next shaped their experiences and worldviews. Mumford & Sons certainly sing a lot about roads and journeys and so forth on Babel, but they way they write songs, the experiences depicted are much more broad and sweeping in their scope. They’re often heartfelt, but they seem like they could be just about anyone’s experiences at times. So while I get a sense of familiarity from the religious analogies (which make sense, given that Mumford’s parents are national leaders of the Vineyard Movement over in the UK), I also get the sneaking suspicion that these songs have been almost entirely scrubbed of their geography, as if that might turn off potential listeners overseas. Some may find this to be advantageous, I guess (probably the same people who find Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver insufferable), but it sort of keeps me at a distance when I’m trying to imagine events from these songs playing out in my mind’s eye. Babel doesn’t give me the mental imagery that so many great songwriters do.
But then I come back around to that simple fact – Damn, these guys can play! And that’s why I keep pulling this album out again and again, loving it at the start, and finding it pleasantly forgettable as it wears on towards its conclusion. Who knows… maybe digging in a little deeper will help me to remember it all a little better.
The title track makes me think of a merry band of woodcutters marching through the forest – it’s acoustic and folksy for sure, but also incredibly aggressive and jumbled, with the guitar strumming in a rapid 6/8 and the banjo plunking along faster than seems humanly possible. Mumford’s voice is appropriately rough on this one, since it seems to be a lament about finding false safety in the strength of one’s own wealth and intelligence and strength. The mood quite suddenly mellows (a common recipe for a Mumford & Sons song) during a few verses where the reflective lyrics need to hit home the most: “‘Cause I know my weakness, know my voice/But I believe in grace and choice/And I know perhaps my heart is farce/But I’ll be born without a mask.” (Only a Brit could make that last line sound like it rhymes.) This might not encapsulate all of the band’s strengths, since Mumford is hanging out all there by himself at some points without the vocal support that the band otherwise provides, so while it isn’t fully representative of their style, it’s a heck of a crowd-pleaser to start things off with.
2. Whispers in the Dark
The slow fading in of a few acoustic chords, and then the sudden, dramatic sprinkling of banjo chords on top of them, gives you the idea early on that this is the sort of song that builds to something epic. It actually doesn’t take too long for the band to reveal their full hand when I think keeping things distant and mysterious for a little longer might have helped to differentiate the song from the others around it. Like the title track, but in regular 4/4 time, the main hallmakrs of this one are the furious guitar and banjo playing, though here Mumford has a little more vocal support to really drive his climactic refrain home. You’ll also hear a bit of electric guitar, not an instrument typically used in their lineup, and not one that overpowers the song, but it definitely gives it a little extra edge near the conclusion. While Mumford’s lyrics are often vague enough to remain just out of reach, his struggle of trying to serve two masters plays out interestingly here, as he describes a sobering “brush with the devil” that scares him straight, and ultimately declares “I’m a cad, but I’m not a fraud/I’ve set out to serve the Lord.”
3. I Will Wait
This was my introduction to the band, as I’d imagine it was for a lot of folks. Hearing it isolated as a live performance on SNL before hearing it on the album helped, because the way that the sudden ending of “Whispers” collides into this track makes it easy to miss that they’ve actually switched to a different song. It’s good in the sense that the album is flowing extremely well so far, and this is such a solid song that it’s an easy nitpick to overlook anyway. Melodically and structurally, all of the band’s strengths are present here, taking off running with one of their usual barn-burning performances, but knowing exactly how to back off for the verse, let the vocal harmonies build up the tension as they lead you into the chorus, and then suddenly drop out nearly everything else again, making the song a beautiful and majestic roller coaster ride of songs. A horn section even comes in near the end, and there are few things that inspire such elation in this listener as hearing the wall of sound that results. The song is one of surrender – when Marcus sings “I’ll kneel down” and “I will wait for you”, it’s hard to interpret any other way than that he’s waiting for nothing less than a response from the Almighty. I’m not one to force spiritual interpretations where songs are intentionally left open-ended by the writer, but Mumford has a certain openness about it that is refreshing without sounding like he’s trying to win over a “Christian music” audience (who likely wouldn’t understand or appreciate the band’s musical style or some of the darker lyrics later in the album anyway).
4. Holland Road
So earlier, I criticized this album for lacking a sense of “place”. This song has that, if for no other reason than that its title is a place. Where that place is or what it’s like in real life is an afterthought, because the song is really about a moment of realization that Mumford apparently had while traveling that road. That makes me think of Paul on the road to Damascus, but for the first time, I’m thinking that the subject of this song might not be God. The measures that this person takes to turn Mumford around seem more cold and calculated, since he references character traits like “Your heart like a stone” and “Your calloused mind”. It’s as if there’s a fine line between humility and humiliation that this person unknowingly or uncaringly crossed in trying to teach Mumford his lesson. Yet the song still ends on a note of faith and reconciliation between mentor and mentee: “And when I’ve hit the ground, neither lost nor found/If you’ll believe in me, I’ll still believe.” The song plays like a slightly mellower “Babel”, still flowing along briskly in 6/8 time, and allowing space for the steady strumming and the river of notes from the banjo to back off and simply strum the basic chords once or twice per measure to give the verse more emphasis. And there’s a horn section once again – which, predictably, I can’t help but love.
5. Ghosts that We Knew
There’s a definite shift in the album’s pacing at this point – after four mostly upbeat tracks, we’re definitely overdue for a ballad, so I have no problem with the album slowing down at this point. But because this is the first of three tracks that starts off in an extremely mellow mood and slowly builds in intensity over the course of five minutes or so, the album as a whole starts to sag under its own weight at this point. I’ll give the boys credit for restraint, as the soft vocal harmonies and only the barest of notes from the guitar and piano are heard for the first verse, and then the banjo picks up gently as Mumford’s vocals begin to soar to more eloquent heights in the second verse. I think I hear a cello as the song’s melody turns a corner into the bridge, but I could just be imagining that part. The song plays as a peaceful eulogy for a dark past left behind, as Mumford clings to a lover in the face of old fears that rise up as ghosts to threaten that those rough days aren’t over. He knows better, and he just needs a little solidarity to help him cling to the truth that things have changed. It builds to a subtle but beautiful climax – but then suddenly returning to the barely audible starkness of the first verse at the end is a bit of a mistake. It makes it barely register that the song has concluded as we drift into the next one.
6. Lover of the Light
This track is actually more midtempo than a true ballad, but the line between the two is sort of blurred by the soft opening – I really think that placing “Ghosts that We Knew” and this track side-by-side robs both of their power. Surprisingly, this sprawling track was released as a single – I guess I could see how the bulk of it is dense and catchy enough to work in more of an easily digested format, but that first verse and its reprisal later in the song are major momentum-killers that I’m guessing would probably need to get edited out in order to make it work. Setting that aside, the song is one of the album’s most beautiful confessions, and ultimately, declarations of devotion. The cello, banjo, and horns help it to build beautifully toward both of its big crescendos (immediately before and after that distracting bridge section), and while I never seem to remember how enough of it goes to sing along with anything other than the chorus, that chorus is the sort of thing that the band could easily close a concert with, perhaps on an extended jam session that doesn’t shut down as abruptly and awkwardly as the studio version does at the end.
7. Lover’s Eyes
Another somewhat long fade-in to a song with an only faintly audible first verse presents us with the same problem yet again – this album has a lot of well-written songs, but some serious mastering and pacing issues. A chorus melody with the same multi-part harmonic reverence and quite nearly the same melody as “Ghosts that We Knew” doesn’t help matters much – I’m still not fully convinced that I’ve gotten the two songs untangled in my mind. You can take all of the aspects of “Ghosts” that worked for me, and cut and paste them here, possibly with a bit of the same climactic drama that made “Lover of the Light” so rousing at the end, but that illustrates the big problem with Babel – doing the same great thing multiple times just diminishes the effect if a band isn’t really careful how they play it. This song takes a sudden turn midway through, jumping off a cliff into a calm bridge melody that turns out to completely reshape the song as a rhythm of 6/8 (similar to “Holland Road”, unfortunately) picks up behind it. So it feels like two songs that we’ve heard elsewhere on the album, crammed together into a medley of sorts, which I guess I can’t fault them for too much because Fleet Foxes have done similar things with standalone snippets of songs that might have not been as impressive on their own. Still, I feel like such a tragic song, which appears to be about falling out of love and trying to muster up the courage to stay in the relationship/marriage when the feelings aren’t cooperating with you, deserves something more distinctive in the music department. Because the tone is so similar to other songs, it’s easy to miss the anguish that comes through in the lyrics.
We say goodbye to the most awkward segment of the album with a two-minute ballad that seems to be entirely performed by Mumford alone. His voice doesn’t work as well for me without it being part of a bigger ensemble, and his acoustic guitar is so low in the mix that it honestly feels like a demo. I don’t tend to like it when Fleet Foxes do this sort of thing either, so don’t think that I’m just being hard on one particular band for this. Solo ballads just aren’t one of this group’s strengths. Still, the inherent loneliness of this track as Marcus begs “Oh my love, don’t fade away” serves well enough as a response/apology for the feelings expressed in “Lover’s Eyes”, and the track serves as a sort of intermission before we dive back into some of the weightier performances in the final third of the album.
9. Hopeless Wanderer
Now here’s a track that remains true to the core elements of the Mumford & Sons sound, but also feels like it’s got a different mood and structure to it – probably one of the most triumphant examples of the band changing things up to surprise the audience. The piano, while a reliable supporting element in many of the previous songs, gets the spotlight as its gentle, rolling melody propels the first verse along. It’s got one of the album’s breeziest melodies, as if it were almost second nature for the guys to harmonize along to it like they do so wonderfully here. Then the chorus kicks in and – BAM! The rhythm quite suddenly switches to a stiff, angry, four-on-the-floor guitar strum, giving the song a certain “rock” edge that definitely wouldn’t have come across as powerfully if the song had started that way. What’s amazing is how the band morphs so easily back into the loose, easygoing verse melody, and throughout the song it’s as if the two moods are at war with one another, the verse playing the role of the supportive friend that comes alongside you on the hard road you’re traveling, and the chorus playing the role of the no-good thief who betrays you and robs you blind on that very same road. It’s fitting for a song in which Marcus questions his own loyalties and hints at his own cowardice in the face of tough decisions. This is definitely the highlight of the album’s back half.
10. Broken Crown
The most intense moment of the album – and probably your best assurance that the band, with all of their references to faith and devotion, isn’t pandering to a specifically religious crowd – is up next. The minor-key melody captivates instantly – there’s an air of despair to it that serves the melody perfectly. This one appears to be the moment where a sinner fully comes to grips with the wrath that his actions have brought – pretty standard fare for a “religious song” so far – but his response, in jarring contrast to the attitude of hope and grace expressed earlier in the album, is that he’s too far gone to be saved. The restless whirlwind of piano, banjo, and guitar slowly builds into a tornado, and by the end of the song, Mumford’s vocals are as loud and ragged as anything we’ve heard since the title track. There’s a certain catharsis to it as he and the guys cry out – “So crawl on belly ’til the sun goes down/I’ll never wear your golden crown!”, but it isn’t for the faint of heart, since the song contains the album’s only profanity, which is timed just right to drive home just how upset with himself the guy is at the end of each chorus: “I took the road, and I f*cked it all away/Now in this twilight, how dare you speak of grace.” I don’t have quite the knee-jerk reaction that mother of all cursewords (at least, that’s how we tend to see it in America) that I used to, but it does still give me mixed feelings about the song. I still get chills in the good way when listening to this one, and it admittedly might not come across as powerfully without the F-bombs. But let’s just say I tend to turn the volume down on this one when my wife is in the car.
11. Below My Feet
Here we transition back to more of a hopeful, prayerful atmosphere, in a ballad that may well serve as a template for the typical Mumford & Sons sound. That is to say, it starts with a quiet verse, brings in the gentle vocal harmonies during the first chorus, and then gradually pours on the other instruments thicker and thicker as the song leads up to its rousing conclusion. Think of it as a hybrid of “Ghosts that We Knew” and “Whispers in the Dark” (yep, the electric guitar makes a comeback here, though once again it’s mostly there for atmosphere). To its credit, this one stays more focused than some of the other ballads – even though the instruments largely drop out during the first few choruses, the band maintains a steady tempo throughout, ensuring that the song doesn’t feel like spliced-together pieces of half-finished songs despite spending its time equally split between solo ballad, group ballad, and full-on folk/rock jam. Lyrically, this track returns to a theme of service and devotion, and it’s the only track to reference Jesus by name (which makes it even more surprising that they chose it for their follow-up number on SNL). The chorus feels like the kind of inspirational prayer you’d see printed in pretty italics against the backdrop of some painting of a dove flying away from a lighthouse or something: “Keep the earth below my feet/For all my sweat, my blood runs weak/Let me learn from where I have been/So keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.” I’ll leave it up to you to determine whether this is a good or bad thing.
12. Not with Haste
The record ends on a ballad that, rhythmically and melodically, seems to once again pull from the same bag of tricks as any number of tracks earlier in the album. I can’t say that I don’t respond emotionally to its uplifting melody plucked out by the banjo, but I could say that about a few other songs – it’s as if the band came up with so many potential closing tracks that they didn’t know which one to end the album with. At this point I have to ask myself, as much as I love all of the twangy sounds and reflective vocals pouring out of my stereo, what the band has to offer. Even the lyrics seem to mine similar themes to those we’ve already heard the guys explore: “Do not let my fickle flesh go to waste/As it keeps my heart and soul in it’s place/And I will love with urgency but not with haste.” It’s a beautiful prayer, but it doesn’t pack the same wow factor that probably the exact same words would have earlier in the album, or paired with more distinctive music.
There’s an extended special edition of this album that I’m not gonna cover in depth – suffice to say that it contains two more original songs by the band (which are decent but nothing to write home about), and a cover of Simon & Garfunkel‘s “The Boxer” featuring Paul Simon himself. (And some pretty good dobro playing. I can’t say exactly what Simon contributes to the song, but it’s a good rendition.) Listen to all 15 of tracks in one sitting, and you’ll probably just be thoroughly confused, or perhaps just vaguely uplifted if you’ve had it on as background music. You start to get diminishing returns when analyzing this much similar material up close. So I’d say at least get used to the main portion of the album before you go digging into the odds and ends.
Overall, I’ve found as I’ve gotten into the details of these songs that Babel still has enough going for it to make it a hearty recommendation despite my misgivings. It’s all about managing expectations. I’m not asking you to go in expecting pure artistic brilliance. Just a job well done by men who love the type of music that they make and who seem to put a lot of heart into their lyrics. I hope that the next time Mumford & Sons come out with an album, they’ll think more deeply about how to give each lyric the musical trimmings it deserves in order to make it stand out the way something like “I Will Wait” or “Hopeless Wanderer” or even “Broken Crown” does. It’ll require some experimentation, which will likely upset some part of their existing fanbase. But I say bring it on. I like these guys, but they need to prove that their Grammy Nominations weren’t just a fluke.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Whispers in the Dark $1.50
I Will Wait $2
Holland Road $1.50
Ghosts that We Knew $1
Lover of the Light $1.25
Lover’s Eyes $.75
Hopeless Wanderer $1.75
Broken Crown $1.25
Below My Feet $1
Not with Haste $.75
Marcus Mumford: Lead vocals, acoustic guitar, drums, mandolin
Ben Lovett: Keyboards, accordion, drums, electric guitar, backing vocals
Country Winston Marshall: Banjo, dobro, electric guitar, backing vocals
Ted Dwane: Upright and electric bass, drums, guitar, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.